It’s the bane of every traveller’s existence. Jet lag – or desynchronosis – affects pretty much everyone who flies across time zones. Disrupted sleep and dehydration from long flights doesn’t help, but jet lag goes way beyond that. Jet lag is your body lagging behind the geographical time shift you’ve just experienced.
Unfortunately, our body clocks aren’t quite as programmable as actual clocks that can instantly adjust to new time zones. Rather, they’re regulated by 24-hour circadian rhythms. These rhythms are conditioned throughout our lives by our daily routines, as well as the balance of sunlight and darkness. Once set, it takes some convincing to change on short notice.
Problems arising from jet lag
Some common symptoms associated with jet lag include:
Obviously, none of these are pleasant in isolation. While travelling, they combine to become a real nuisance.
Holidays are a whirlwind of sightseeing – how are you supposed to fully appreciate the Grand Canyon if you can’t keep your eyes open? Walking around foreign places in a zombie-like state also leaves you vulnerable. If you’re not switched on, you become more susceptible to dangers such as pickpockets, lost items, accidents and even sickness. Don’t let jet lag compromise your enjoyment of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Jet lag tends to be more severe for people travelling east. Our bodies typically adjust to new time zones about 20% faster after a westbound flight. So beware those long hauls across the Pacific. Luckily, there are some simple ways to minimise the effects of jet lag.
Top 10 tips for beating jet lag
1. Get in sync (for long trips)
For longer trips – anything more than a few days – prepare for the time change by adjusting your bedtime in advance. Obviously, you can’t be napping all day if you’re at work, but shifting an hour or two in the week prior to departure could make all the difference at the other end.
2. Don’t change a thing (for short trips)
If your trip is only for a few days, it’s probably easier just to stay on ‘home time’ throughout. As much as your itinerary (and social etiquette) allows, maintain your regular sleep and meal patterns in keeping with the time at home.
3. Strategic fasting
This method is based on a 2002 study about food’s link to circadian rhythms. The premise is that circadian rhythms are largely dictated by light-dark when food is readily available. But if food availability shifts, circadian rhythms are forced to follow. If you want to try it, the system is this:
- Eat a normal breakfast and lunch on the day of travel
- Avoid food right before AND during the flight (but drink plenty of water)
- Your fasting should last between 14 and 24 hours
- Eat shortly after arrival, in keeping with local meal times
- Follow the local meal schedule from then on
4. Stay hydrated and avoid alcohol
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of hydration, not just for your sleep pattern but for your general wellbeing. It’s a decisive factor in getting a peaceful night’s rest and whether or not you wake up with a full blown headache.
While alcohol might help you get to sleep quicker, it reduces the overall quality of your sleep. Alcohol disrupts rapid eye movement sleep (REM) sleep, so when its effects wear off, your system will wake itself up and it won’t be thanking you for last night’s decision-making. Best to minimise consumption, at least until your body has a chance to adjust.
5. But be smart about caffeine
Obviously, caffeine is useful as a quick fix to improve alertness, but limit yourself to just a cup in the morning so as not to become reliant on it. Avoid tea, coffee and other caffeinated drinks for at least a couple of hours before you go to bed, as caffeine acts as a stimulant which will prevent you from having a good night’s rest.
6. Freshen up
Hydration extends beyond drinking water. Air travel really does a number on your skin. Consider packing things like moisturiser, lip balm and eye drops to keep you fresh on the flight. Just be mindful of your carry on liquid allowances.
7. Exercise during the day
Exercise is a great way to kick-start your body’s alertness levels and make sure you’re the right kind of tired at the end of the day. But timing is everything. Early morning or late afternoon exercise (even a brisk walk) will do wonders. Don’t start any vigorous exercise in the evening when your body should be winding down to prepare for sleep.
8. Fun in the sun
Daylight is crucial for regulating circadian rhythms. Sun will help you adjust by literally telling your body that it’s daytime. Weather permitting, get outside and enjoy the sights as much as possible. If you’re really fading, take a half-hour nap or two to get you through until proper bedtime.
9. Try to book an overnighter
Getting to sleep on an overnight flight is infinitely easier than earlier in the day. It best replicates your normal routine, ensuring meals are served at a similar time to what you’re used to.
No matter how tired you are, it’s difficult to fall asleep immediately when you reach your destination. Therefore, it’s better to arrive during the day, using that initial excitement to get you through the afternoon before collapsing for a well-deserved rest. If you can get some strategic napping done on an overnight flight, you’re ahead of the game.
10. Have a relaxing flight
Start your trip off on the right foot by getting a decent rest on the plane. If you’re a deep sleeper you should have no trouble. If not, enlist the help of earplugs, an eye mask, a neck pillow and some ambient sound apps to cut out distractions.
Tired of jet lag? Try these apps
Jet Lag Rooster
This app is aimed at frequent flyers, as well as trainee pilots and cabin crew who need to adjust their body clock smoothly. Jet Lag Rooster recommends the optimum times to seek out sunlight and when to avoid it.
Similar to Jet Lag Rooster, Entrain is designed to manage your light exposure, adjusting to your itinerary as you move around. Get those circadian rhythms back up to speed.
ANA Takeoff Mode
A nifty app designed by the Japanese airline ANA to take the anxiety out of air travel. Takeoff Mode detects when your plane is taking off and reacts in real time, providing games and sounds to either distract or soothe you.
Ambient noise apps (various)
There are also countless apps to set your mood for relaxation – Naturespace, SoundCurtain, White Noise and Ambiance just to name a few. Whether a thunderstorm, whale noises or elevator music is your jam, surely anything’s an improvement on the hum of the pressurised cabin punctuated by a toddler crying across the aisle.
By taking steps to minimise jet lag, you give yourself the best chance of enjoying your holiday. You’ll also be much better company, which your travel buddies will definitely appreciate.